Mr East Goes To The Movies 2013: Lincoln

by George_East on March 25, 2013

I have some difficulty with Steven Spielberg.  His films tend to be emotionally manipulative, saccharine and simplistic.   Even his films about big subjects tend towards this undermining their own seriousness – Schindler’s List, for example,  with its picking out in a dash of colour, in the stark black and white , of a pretty young blonde girl in the ghetto so her body can  be shown later in the same red coat (as if somehow her blondeness or youngness or prettiness made the enormity of Nazi crimes even greater).

Spielberg’s best films came from a period when he was making what were essentially pulpy B movies, albeit after the first, pulpy B movies with big budgets – Duel, Close Encounters, Indiana Jones and, of course, his one genuine masterpiece, Jaws.   These were films that harked back to B movies and Saturday morning serials shown on supporting bills in the 1940s and 1950s.

I also have some difficulty with Daniel Day Lewis – the earnestness, the tendency for ACTING at its most over the top, the shoutyness.   It is Day Lewis’ performance in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York which makes the film such a difficult watch for me (oh how I wish Marty had told the story of Liam Neeson’s Priest Vallon instead of Day Lewis’ The Butcher).   His outburst  as an elderly Daniel Plainview in the last 10 minutes of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood turns an extraordinary Chinatown-like study of American capitalism into a laughably ridiculous cartoon.

So it is fair to say that I went into Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln with Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role with a great deal of trepidation.    Even more so given that the film  focuses on the passing of the 13th Amendment to the American Constitution, abolishing slavery.  This had all of the ingredients to be truly horrible.

The first fifteen minutes of the film confirmed all of my worst fears in what is a mind-numbingly trite opening sequence.    In the aftermath of a battle in the Civil War Abraham Lincoln sits in a chair under a canopy in a pose not unlike that in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.  No soldiers seem to notice him other than 2 white soldiers and 2 black soldiers (for fuck sake).   The President engages in a conversation with them during which they, between them, manage to recite the whole of the Gettysburg Address word perfect.    It is so bad I almost walked out, particularly as the film is 2 and a half hours long.   You would need a very strong stomach indeed to sit through 2 and a half hours as bad as that.

But I am very glad I didn’t.   Once it gets through this opening sequence, Lincoln, turns into something far more interesting and impressive.  It is a film, which is not about idealism or the nobility of great political causes.   It is rather that rare thing, a film which takes raw politics and political process seriously.    It is a film set against the backdrop of the final days of the American civil war, but which does not show any battles – only their aftermaths.

Lincoln is shown as a man who through his loyal Secretary of State (and the man he beat for the Republican nomination in 1860), William H Seward (played by the great David Staitharn), has to barrel roll and ply with pork sufficient members of the US Congress to get the Amendment through.   Lincoln has to play off the conservative Republican faction (keen to make peace with the South after  nearly 4 years of War) under Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) and the radicals under the austere abolitionist, Thaddeus Stevens (played brilliantly by Tommy Lee Jones), and buy off enough Democrats to get the necessary majority.

This process is not portrayed as Lincoln using the art of great rhetoric to persuade – something which would have been an easy and very Spielbergian device given that Lincoln was almost certainly the greatest speechmaker to inhabit the White House. Indeed Lincoln is portrayed as a bit of  an anecdotalising bore.  A man who can by telling a story keep people he meets eating out of his hand, but for those who know him well it becomes something of an irritating piece of political schtick.  There is a great scene in which the administration’s no nonsense Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton walks off in ill-tempered disgust as Lincoln goes off on another of his apocryphal tales.

Winning the critical vote was instead, Lincoln shows, a question of doing whatever needed to be done ‘within the law’, you understand.  The mechanism employed by Seward is to employ a trio of political agents, under W N Bilbo (James Spader), to offer whatever jobs and sinecures are in the President’s gift to retiring Democrats in return for their votes.  The vote in the end is won by Lincoln employing the most tricksy of shifty lawyer-like half truths in answering a question from Congress in order to keep Preston Blair’s conservatives on side.  The ends may be noble, the means are corrupt and grubby.

Spader is one of  the delights of the film.  His character is probably only on screen for 15 or 20 minutes or so in total but his role is reminiscent of the great character roles to be found in classic Hollywood films (for the second review in a row – the films of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah come to mind).  Such roles are tragically seldom seen in films these days – the character part which appears throughout the film, has been replaced by the 10 minute cameo role involving no more than a couple of consecutive scenes (see for example Don Johnson in Django Unchained).  Spader’s good humoured political cynicism lights up the screen every time he appears.

This political process,  in the rooms of the major politicians, in Congress itself and in taverns around Washington is utterly absorbing, particularly if you are in any way a political geek.

Despite this there are still some appallingly crass Spielbergian aspects to the film. The central relationship between Abraham Lincoln and his son Robert Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is desperate to go to war, but whose mother, Lincoln’s wife, Mary (Sally Field) is still mourning another of her sons and who refuses to let him fight, does not ring true at all.  It is far too much of a cipher for the obvious comparison between a man who is sending the nation’s sons to their deaths but who is protecting his own.

Even worse is a scene in which Abraham Lincoln departs to go to see An American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre and is seen off by his black servant in a manner which suggests that he knows he is saying goodbye for the last time.  This really isn’t worthy of the subject matter.  If Lincoln thought he was going to get shot when he went to the theatre, you can be damn sure he wouldn’t have gone.  He was not Christ going to the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper (as this scene seems to suggest).

But for all that, this was the Spielberg film I have been most impressed with since I don’t know when (Raiders when I was 11?).  Day Lewis was worthy of his Oscar, he utterly inhabits the role and is on screen for a large part of the 150 minute length.   The key supporting performances (Lee Jones, Spader, Strathairn, Holbrook and Field) are all excellent.

Lincoln does throw something curious up though – how on earth is it that arguably the greatest American President of all time and the greatest American General (US Grant) are played by Brits (the latter by Jared Haris – better known as Lane Pryce in Mad Men).  Christ when John Ford made the wonderful (and, in truth however much I was taken with Lincoln,  far superior) The Young Mr Lincoln, he cast Henry Fonda in the title role – and you don’t get more all-American than that.

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George_East March 26, 2013 at 10:16 am

I’d also go with good but not great. If I was crude enough to give films marks it would be a 7/10 I think. Funnily enough I felt Django dragged more (particularly in the last hour). Other than the seemingly interminable opening sequence, Lincoln didn’t feel over long. It might be the subject matter, which would be diminished by a standard 3 act treatment.

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George_East March 26, 2013 at 2:58 pm

It was expressly about one very narrow part of his career only so I don’t think you can criticise it for not dealing with the Plains Tribes. I am not sure whether his suspected bisexuality would really amount to very much other than unnecessary titallation in the context of the subject matter of the film.

I don’t defend Spielberg very often, but I really don’t think it was a hagiography at all. Lincoln was shown as a bore, corrupt in achieving his political ends, overly clever clever on his interpretation of constitutional law (ie the President’s War Powers) to achieve almost certainly unconstitutional ends and willing to place his son as far away from danger as was humanly possibly for a serving member of the Union forces, as Grant’s aide de camp. It was nothing like the hagiography I expected it to be, which was one of the reasons I liked it.

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